Monday, January 02, 2012

A Coupla Flicks

Happy 2012. I'll open the year by mentioning two movies I've seen over the past week that were both terrific experiences, for wildly different reasons: The Descendants and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a.k.a. MI:4).

The former was made for a fraction of the cost of the latter and features, to my eye, zero special effects. It's what should be a small movie by today's standards but it feels big, due to the Hawaii locale, some key shots of some very important (to the plot) land in Kauai, and the care with which the moments unfold. All that, and George Clooney.

It's interesting to me who loves and does not love the movie. Although it's the closest thing to a traditional drama (or maybe "dramady") amongst the movies I've seen this year, none of the senior citizens I've spoken with about it really cared for it. Also, it's not as impressive on a screener as it is in the theater, as it's all about small significant moments, detailed expressions, the communal theatrical experience pays off with different audience members picking up different touches at different times, laughter building, shared sympathy during the tougher moments.

I took my 12-year-old, who's growing more sophisticated in his movie tastes, and we both enjoyed it, and both had the same favorite character: Sid. He's a guy who tags along with Clooney and his daughters as they go to hunt down the man who Clooney's learned has been sleeping with his comatose wife prior to her life-threatening jet-ski accident. Sid is an iconic laid-back Hawaiian surfer dude, always smiling, always on his own stoner wavelength, with some of the best lines in the movie and a little secret of his own. Everyone seems to agree that it's great to see Beau Bridges again, as Cousin Hugh, a lynchpin of he plot/sub-plot convergence around a land deal that Clooney and family are being forced to make due to changes in Hawaiian property law.

As for Tom Cruise and company, SEE IT IN IMAX. There's nothing like climbing the side of the world's tallest building, in Dubai, with special agent Ethan Hunt and a gigantic floor-to-ceiling screen. The key stunt sequence was actually performed by Cruise in the location, no joke, and it feels different than a CGI greenscreen fest.

I've seen MI:1 (directed by Brian DePalma) and MI:2 (a rather neutered John Woo) but missed MI:3 (J.J. Abrams). I found the first one to have exciting moments and an interesting false-flashback twist, with the opening credits, a suspended Cruise scene and the climactic helicopter-in-Chunnel sequence being the best parts, but the second one did not even feel like a Mission: Impossible story -- there was virtually no teamwork, lynchpin of the weekly series. Aside from Thandie Newton, not much to recommend it. This one appears to be the big winner of the series.

What makes the new one work is the emphasis on teamwork (it's even underlined at the end), great casting of Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner and, thank the cinema gods, the inspired choice of Brad Bird as director. This is Bird's first live-action feature, but he made my favorite (hands-down) Pixar movie, The Incredibles, which recalled and spoofed 1960's James Bond-style spy thrillers as much as superhero tropes. Unlike some action directors, Bird doesn't over-cut the exciting stuff. As I'd say for David Fincher, the camera is always in the right place. There are touches that seem to be his, like a fluttering glove stuck to the side of the Dubai building, Ethan tossing a tip on a table, little things that make it more fun and more real.

While I can't claim to be an expert in this movie series, what struck me was that, as in all good adventure movies, the best laid plans go awry and inspired improvisation has to save the day. What feels different about this one is the understanding that cutting edge technology will almost always have kinks -- it comes with the territory, no room for grousing, just try and move on. It starts with a Russian pay phone that delivers the mission message to Hunt but doesn't self-destruct on time until Hunt gives it a smack and includes loss of wireless signals, botched mask-making, trying to do a retinal scan on the side of a moving train.

This is essential the Silicon Valley experience, something Bird is close to due to his time up in NoCal at Pixar. As a colleague of mine once said, "It's not cutting edge software unless it crashes."

That spirit gives the movie it's moxie. And the IMAX chase through a desert sandstorm doesn't hurt either.

Here's to more good flicks -- along with more aggravating politics -- in 2012. Thanks for reading in 2011, and I hope you'll keep returning to Nettertainment to ride it out, as long as I'm posting.

PS: They finally caught Omar!

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